The best thing about going 9-0 is the chance to go 10-0. That's pretty much all you can say after Ohio State slogged through a 28-14 victory over Minnesota last Saturday. But, a win is a win, and not only did the Buckeyes stay undefeated, but also earned the program its 22nd consecutive victory.
With J.T. Barrett's off field episode behind him, the Buckeyes look to make it double digits on the season as they head to Champaign, Illinois for the annual 'Battle for the Illibuck.'
Illinois comes into Saturday's showdown 5-4, and is actually surprisingly decent! Though the offense isn't very good, it still has skill position talent worth watching, and who are capable of making Ohio State pay. It's the defense that really shines, though. The Illini have been fantastic defensively this season, shutting down opposing passing games, playing the run well, and swarming on standard downs.
It should be a very good test before the Buckeyes play against the two best teams on their schedule this season. Here are five things to watch for Saturday:
3rd and Barrett
It's been tough sledding for the Ohio State offense on third down this season. The Buckeyes rank 61st in 3rd down S&P+, a far cry from their number five ranking at the end of 2014. Without being too harsh, the burden of this failure falls on the passing game.
Through nine games, Ohio State ranks 101st nationally in 3rd down passer rating, and has only completed an anemic 19 attempts for first downs through the air in such situations. Individually, Cardale Jones ranks 92nd out of 100 passers qualified. Barrett only has 13 3rd down passing attempts this season, but based on previous data, I'm encouraged that he'll give the Buckeyes a boost in this area.
In 2014, Barrett ranked fourth nationally in 3rd down passer rating, while also accounting for 10 passing touchdowns. Barrett's poise and accuracy kept Buckeye drives alive, and made an already potent offense even more dangerous. It wasn't just through the air, either, as J.T. finished 2nd nationally in 3rd down rushes earning 1st downs, averaging nearly eight yards per carry in the process.
Not only has Barrett been a better third down passer than Jones historically, he also adds another dimension with his running ability; whether on designed runs, or a scramble when things break down. While the offense has improved as the season's gone on, third down passing is an area that's still lagging behind. It's hard to imagine Barrett being worse, and a dramatic improvement could help the Buckeye offense reach near where they were last season.
Mr. Do it All
When diving into Illinois' offensive profile, there's not a whole lot of good things to point out. They're inefficient, struggle to finish drives, and helpless on third downs. Outside of dropping 48 points on Purdue last week, the Illini haven't put up more than 20 in their five other games against Power 5 competition.
In squaring off against one of the best defense's in the country this week, it's hard to see that changing. It's not all bad, however, as they have at least one player to key in on. Electric running back Josh Ferguson will be used in multiple ways against the Buckeye defense, as our on Christopher Jason outlined earlier this week:
He is the most complete running back that the Ohio State defense will play in the regular season, as he possesses excellent vision, elusiveness, breakaway speed, the ability to catch the football and he has shown some pop for a smaller (5'10", 190 lb) running back. Illinois uses him as a tailback in the I-formation, flanking the quarterback in Shotgun, in the Urban Meyer H-back role out of the slot and in the Pistol.
Ferguson missed Illinois' prior three games before returning against Purdue last week and accounting for 174 total yards and a touchdown. The fifth year senior has had an extremely dynamic career, racking up over 3,700 total yards. Along with freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn, he forms a formidable one-two backfield punch that deserves a better offensive line to run behind.
Ferguson is going to get touches in a multitude of ways, and whenever his name is called, it will probably be up to Ohio State's own 'Mr. Do it All,' Darron Lee, to corral him.
Inefficient Illini offense leads to OSU points
If Illinois isn't able to generate big plays via Ferguson or Vaughn, it's unlikely they have much else to challenge the Ohio State defense with. The Illini aren't adept at moving the ball steadily down the field, and don't often give their defense great field position to work with. If the Buckeyes are able to once again limit opposition efficiency, they should be starting lots of drives near midfield.
The Illini rank 77th in opposition short field drives, consistently giving opponents a head start on scoring touchdowns. Think of it as Illinois giving Ohio State a full lap lead on Rainbow Road, but they don't have the bogus computer AI patch to catch up.
Conversely, the Buckeye offense ranks 5th nationally in short field drives, getting a helping hand from their defense and special teams. While Illinois' 10th ranked S&P+ defense is no joke, they're constantly put in bad position, and which plays right into the Buckeyes' hands.
We've seen Ohio State's offense sputter at times throughout the season, even with Barrett at the helm. It's reasonable to think it will again against such a good defense, but a field position advantage can help mitigate that. While I think Ohio State's offense will be just fine anyway, a short field will only help. Even better, they may not have to do anything if Jalin Marshall has his say.
An inefficient Illinois offense means a bevy of punts. A bevy of Illinois punts means a bevy of Jalin Marshall returns. At some point, he's going to take one for a touchdown, and there's a good chance it comes Saturday.
Marshall is 11th nationally in return average, and while he still hasn't broken one for a touchdown, he has consistently gained good yardage. In fact, Marshall ranks second nationally in return yards per game, only behind Maryland dynamo Will Likely. He's been steady, and while some of his decisions undoubtedly scare us all, he hasn't fumbled yet this season.
I rarely make blatant predictions here on 'I Got Five on It,' but I'll go out on a limb and say that Marshall finally hits pay dirt on a punt return this week. He should get at least a couple chances to make Illini defenders miss at midfield, and will finally be rewarded for his stellar work.
When you first glanced at this year's schedule, Saturday's game against Illinois probably wasn't the first thing that stood out. Eventually though, your mind wandered, and you realized Ohio State is taking a trip to Champaign, late in the season, right before playing both Michigan schools.
It was then that you probably remembered this, this, this, or this. At that point, the Illinois game became a 'trap game.' It became, 'Oh god, we're going to totally look ahead to Michigan State and Michigan and somehow lose to Illinois because they always play us tough!'
While the environment will almost certainly be as dull, gray, and listless as every Ohio State-Illinois matchup is contractually obligated to be, the Buckeyes won't be replicating the past efforts of those (un)memorable games.
In Urban Meyer's three games versus Illinois as Ohio State Head Coach, the Buckeyes have dropped 52, 60, and 55 points, respectively, on the Illini (and could have given them 60-plus in each, had they felt so inclined). Granted, this is a different Illinois team, especially defensively. Even if the Ohio State offense has its best day of the season, it's hard to see them scoring with that type of proficiency.
It's also hard to see Illinois doing much of their own offensively. This is probably Meyer's most complete defense yet at Ohio State, and it's big weakness --giving up big plays-- isn't much of an Illini strength.
Illinois is by no means a bad team. After firing Tim Beckman, interim coach Bill Cubit has done a fantastic job getting them to a 5-4 record. Those wins are also over Kent State, Western Illinois, Middle Tennessee, Nebraska and Purdue. Against the four best teams they've played this season, (Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, North Carolina) the Illini are 0-4, losing by a combined score of 140-47. I don't think I'm going out on a limb in saying Ohio State is the best team Illinois will have played this season.
I'm not going to call for Ohio State to blow the doors off the Illini like they have the previous three games under Meyer, but I'm also not convinced we're going to see the Tressel-era slugfests of yore, either.